The U.S. penal system is ineffective

“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” ― Nelson Mandela
    Regardless of your take on crime, it goes against nature to have people locked behind bars. Some crimes deserve punishment, that is without argument. With the increase in the number of people incarcerated in the United States, the crime rate has adjusted very little. I want to take a look at the United States penal system and examine its effectiveness.  
    Let’s start at a prominent place, the mental health of prisoners behind bars. The closing of mental institutions in the 1950s and 1960s took place for a couple of reasons. The care in those facilities and the techniques used to help the mentally impaired came under just scrutiny. The price for adequate care was another concern. The idea was to bring the mental health care into the prisons to help rehabilitate incarcerated inmates. Like every novel idea, this one had shortcomings that would soon be exposed. 
   The growing number of inmates with mental health problems should be of concern for our nation. It is estimated about 50% of all men in prison, suffer from some form of mental illness, that number jumps to 75% for women incarcerated. NPR had a fascinating article on the subject from their 2017 post, here is a link The secondary problem with this system is people with mental illness not yet in the penal system. The lack of facilities for the mentally ill is disturbing.  Without proper treatment, statistics show an alarming number of these untreated people with mental illness will end up in prison. The level of medication in prison for the mentally ill is a catch 22, and the problem continues to grow. 
   The number of people incarcerated in the United States is alarming. We live on a planet with approximately 7 billion people. The figures from the United States Census Bureau put the population of the United States at 328 million people. That means the United States has roughly 4.6% of the world population but houses 25% of the world’s prisoners. If that number is astonishing to you, it should be. These statistics show a there is a systemic problem with the method prisoners are prosecuted, processed and eventually incarcerated in America. There are currently 2.2 million people in prison in the United States, that is more than the following cities: San Diego California, Dallas Texas or Philadelphia Pennsylvania. To complete this number game analysis, for every 100,000 people in the United States, 655 of them are in prison. Is crime in the U.S.A. that much higher than other parts of the world? It is surprising that the U.S.A. does not make the top 10 list of countries with the highest crime rates. Venezuela is ranked number one in the world, and it has 100 murders per 100,000 people. America ranks 31st in the world for gun violence, a statistic you would expect to be higher. So, why does the U.S.A. have such a high percentage of the world’s prison population? 
     The reasons for the high percentage of prisoners in America will not be resolved with rhetoric alone. It appears looking at the numbers and statistics that some of this is due to the war on drugs. For example, there are states in which possession of 8 ounces of marijuana could land you in state prison for three years. The person charged with possession of an illegal substance now has a felony record. The Marijuana laws are one of several dozen laws that are not only draconian but leave very little room for negotiating based on the accused’s record. Another factor in the growing number of prisoners is something we call recidivism. 
 Recidivism (the tendency of a convicted criminal to re-offend) is another reason for the high incarceration rates. Without proper rehabilitation of our prisoners, we can expect very high recidivism to occur. A study done by the U.S. Department of Justice documented prisoners from 30 states over the period from 2005-2014. The surprising findings showed 5 of 6 prisoners were arrested at least once during the nine years following their release, this is an 83% recidivism, and those numbers are expected to climb higher. California passed three strikes, and you are out in March of 1994. This law stated that a person committing a severe violent felony with two other convictions would spend life in prison. It is hailed as a crime determent and adopted by 28 other states. While it appears to have helped in most polls, the most significant impact on the crime in these states are statistically alcohol consumption and unemployment rate. The one last thing we will look at is the lack of rehabilitation of prisoners. 
      Education of prison populations is usually high school level or less. Indiana tracked prisoners that obtained a G.E.D. while in prison and found the recidivism level dropped more than 20 percent. Today’s prisoners released without skill sets possess very few skills valuable to employers. With prison overcrowding and the lack of funding, prisoners are being locked down for extended hours. Mix into this the statistics we discussed earlier, the number of mentally ill and you have a Molotov cocktail for disaster this is a segment of the population we lock up and try to forget. There are many success stories we could celebrate if we come up with a plan that includes treating our prisoners like human beings. It might seem like a fantasy, but the process we have in place is not working. 
    I believe Nelson Mandela was correct with his quote, “ A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” We have a problem that will not go away by locking people up and hoping they stay in prison. Eventually, these people will get out and be your neighbor, or the person bagging your groceries, or the security guard at your complex. The problem might not be the crime; the problem could be how we look at it.


Author: duanew2

I am a retired Marine that believes in the power of conversation and learning. I hope this site allows all of us to do both.

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